Why Be Apologetic About Helping the Gifted?

By Walt Gardner on November 14, 2011 7:22 AM|Recommend
 

Only in the U.S. are gifted children treated as stepchildren. Despite their growing numbers, which are now estimated at 3 million, they have no strong lobbies in Congress. As a result, they remain underresourced and underchallenged even though they are a national treasure. A new report by the National Association for Gifted Children found that the brightest students are falling behind their international peers on math and reading tests ("Brightest Stall, Low Achievers Gain," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12). This squandering of talent is hard to understand and even harder to defend.

Up until the 1990s, gifted students were taught in separate classes. But this approach was considered elitist. Consequently, they began to be mainstreamed. However, even before then, the only initiative at the federal level to provide resources for states was the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act. Although it was passed in 1988, it largely languished in the shadows. Passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which focused almost exclusively on the lowest performing students, further hastened its obscurity. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, only 31 states require schools to identify gifted students, and just 23 earmark funding for them.

What is more controversial is how to identify gifted children. In New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, public schools use the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (a reasoning exam) and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment (a knowledge exam). Private schools use the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence. This causes confusion among parents who wonder which test allows more valid inferences to be made. It also creates cynicism about their predictive value because research shows that children's IQ widely fluctuates. Then there's the matter of the percentile used to qualify for admission.

If the use of these tests were not contentious enough, there is also the issue of ethnic diversity. According to the New York City Department of Education, the number of gifted preschoolers is on the rise, but they overwhelmingly come from the city's middle-class and wealthier neighborhoods. To what extent should diversity be considered? Moreover, what is the proper age for a determination to be made when it carries such far-reaching implications?

I don't question for a second the importance of providing resources for low-achieving students from any background. But a balance has to be struck. Despite popular belief, not all gifted students learn by themselves. If they don't receive the proper support, they become bored and drop out. In fact, gifted students drop out nationwide at the rate of about 5 percent. This is a loss of talent that is unacceptable. Whether we can get beyond our misconceptions about the gifted, however, is another story.

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